Do you know how to use phrases like she had left, he hadn't studied and we had been waiting?

When we talk about something that happened in the past we sometimes want to refer back to something that happened before that time. We can use the past perfect tense (had + past participle) to do this.

 


Look at these two sentences.

 

  • John left the house at 7:30 yesterday morning.
  • Mary rang John’s doorbell at 8:15 yesterday.

Both actions happened in the past so we use the past simple tense. But look at how we can combine the sentences.

  • Mary rang John’s doorbell at 8:15 yesterday but John had already left the house.

We use the past perfect (had left) because the action happened before another action in the past (Mary rang the doorbell.)

Look at some more examples of the past perfect.

  • When Mrs Brown opened the washing machine she realised she had washed someone else's laundry.
  • I got a letter from Jim last week. We’d been at school together but we’d lost touch with each other.

The past perfect is used because they were at school before he received the letter. It refers to an earlier past.

Look at these 2 sentences.

  • James had cooked breakfast when we got up.
  • James cooked breakfast when we got up.

In the first sentence, the past perfect tells us that James cooked breakfast before we got up. In the second sentence, first we got up and then James cooked breakfast.

Past perfect continuous

The past perfect can also be used in the continuous.

  • I realised I had been working too hard so I decided to have a holiday.
  • By the time Jane arrived we had been waiting for 3 hours.

NOTE
The most common mistake with the past perfect is to overuse it or to use it simply because we are talking about a time in the distant past.

For example we would not say

The Romans had spoken Latin

but rather

The Romans spoke Latin

because it simply describes a past event, and not an event before and relevant to another past event.

Remember that we only use the past perfect when we want to refer to a past that is earlier than another time in the narrative.

 

Exercise

Language level

Intermediate: B1

Comments

Dear Teacher,

This is about articles and making a generalization ( in this case "bank"). I would like to know if there is any difference in the meaning of the following sentences or if they have the same meaning. Could you also tell me which one is more appropriate?
1. People go to a bank to deposit money
2. People go to banks to deposit money

Thank you.

Hello Donald Harrison,

Both sentences are possible; which is appropriate depends upon what you want to say. 

The distinctions between indefinite, definite and zero article for generic meaning are very subtle. I wrote a long answer a while ago describing them.  You can find that answer here:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/comment/140263#comment-140263

 

I think if you read that explanation you should be able to see the difference between your two sentences.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter,

Thank you for the reply. I found the explanation given in the link very useful.
Thanks again for all what you do in this forum to help learners.

All the best

Donald

Dear Sir,
Can we use the following question when a particular work has not been finished(present perfect) yet. "I thought(It's only my thinking in the past and realizes in the present that the work has not been finished) he had finished the work(past perfect)".
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson

'I thought he had finished the work' is grammatically correct. With this sentence, you are expressing your own thinking about the work being finished -- it is irrelevant whether the work is actually finished or not.

Does that answer your question? If not, could you please rephrase it, as I'm not sure I've understood it completely.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Yes, You have answered my question. That is fantastic! Here, I am not able to stop myself from appreciating your wonderful service to people like me, because you are offering further help to me in your answer. Thank you very very much for that. By the by, I am getting so confident in speaking English.
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson

Glad to be of help! Thanks for your comment.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,

I have come up with a new question after I have contemplated on the wonderful answer you gave me.

When we change the direct sentence in to indirect sentence, we normally write like the following.
Direct: Tom said to(past tense) Tim "Simon has not finished (present perfect) his work".
Indirect : Tom told (past tense) Tim that Simon had not finished (Past perfect) his work.
But if the work has not finished yet,( at the moment). We can also say the indirect sentence, as follows.
Indirect: Tom told(past tense) Tim that Simon has not finished(Present perfect) the work. - Here we are taking the current situation into account.
Is the above indirect sentence correct? Can this be an exemption(if the work has not been finished yet)?
Please enlighten me in this regard.
Thank you,
Regards,
kingson

Hello kingson

I can see you are analysing reported speech very carefully, which is great. It would not be correct in standard British English to use the present perfect in the way that you ask about. Even if you say 'Tom told Tim that Simon had not finished his work', that doesn't mean that Simon is still not working at the time you say this. The speech you are reporting is understood to refer to that past time, not the current time.

Does that make sense?

By the way, I wanted to mention that are working on a revision of this page, which I expect we will be publishing in the next week or two. I wanted to tell you this because the explanation and exercise above will be replaced with new ones. The new ones will be even better, but if you want to copy what is above for your own private use and reference in the future, I would recommend you do it soon.

The comments on this page will not be replaced, so don't worry about that.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk,
That's great! My English is building up. Your help is really removing the gray areas in my English skills. Thanks for letting me know about the new web page. I have been recording all the discourses, we have on this page.
Thanks, again.
Regards,
kingson

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